Cruising Up The Amazon

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A few years ago we decided to take a cruise up the Amazon River in Brazil. Being the largest river in the world, we thought we should experience some of it. I examined the various cruise company brochures and discovered that Royal Olympia Cruises was doing this at the time of year we wished to travel. They had two rather new ships they had recently put into service and one was going where we wanted to sail.

The Olympia Voyager was 25,000 Gross Tons and 590 feet long. Almost new, and just the right size — as we prefer smaller ships — it carried only 700 passengers.

It was also rather unique for cruise ships because it and its identical sister ship had been designed to be German naval cruisers. At some point early on in the construction, the German Navy decided they didn’t want them and placed the ships on the market for sale. A Greek company purchased them and the design was changed to accommodate cruises. The engineering and engines were already completed when the sale occurred. I mention this because these two ships could cruise at the speed of 35 knots rather than the usual 18 to 22 knots most cruise ships travel at today.

As friends and relatives heard about our special interest cruise, a few decided to join us. As I remember, there were about nine people who traveled with us.

Our cruise was to last a total of 18 days, with departure from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The itinerary was to include three Caribbean islands as well as a cruise up the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Then go on to Devils Island, the once dreaded French prison island off the coast of Guiana. We would then head south to the mouth of the Amazon River for a cruise 1,000 miles up to Manaus, Brazil, a city of more than a million people. After a visit there for two days we were to cruise back down the Amazon and out into the Atlantic to head north for a couple more Caribbean islands before returning to Florida.

The day before our cruise ship was to leave; we flew to Florida and overnighted at a nice resort. Here, family and friends gathered for our sailing.

At 5 p.m. the Olympia Voyager cast off lines and we were on our way headed south/east toward the Caribbean. Our first port of call was at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. This lovely spot is less visited by the major cruise ships and we enjoyed a ride to the other side of the island and stopped at a beach for swimming and sunning. We also enjoyed lunch under a palm umbrella. Late in the day the ship left for another wonderful place, Martinique. Here, we did a little shopping and took an island tour before returning to the ship.

Next was one of my favorites, Barbados. Most of us had been here several times in the past so we simply went into town and strolled the streets to get re-acquainted. We had lunch in a fine French restaurant and visited the beach in the afternoon.

The next day was spent at sea and learned there was not enough depth of water in the Orinoco River, so we could not enter and would have to cancel that portion of the trip. Instead, they would give us three more Caribbean islands on the return to make up for the missed Orinoco. That seemed fine with us and other passengers.

We continued sailing south to reach Devils Island. You have probably seen films set in this location, as had we. We approached three small islands located 11 miles off the shore of Guiana. One was Devils Island. Our ship dropped anchor and lowered its lifeboats to allow us to visit this rather infamous spot in the Atlantic.

There was a small dock to receive the lifeboat tenders and we marched off to venture through the prison complex. The island is quite small and we could walk all the way around in little time. The buildings were made of stone blocks housing small cells. It is tropical, hot and humid with small animals running about. The shore was rocky and swimming around the island were sharks. I think in the history of the prison, only one or two ever swam the 11-mile distance to the mainland and lived.

After four or five hours here, we pulled anchor and continued sailing south to the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.

It might surprise you to learn that the mouth of the Amazon is 50 miles wide and the silt from the river can be seen in the Atlantic for over 200 miles.

The river water moves at about 8 knots. The average width is seven miles for the first several hundred miles going up. It appears less narrow because of islands found between the shoreline. Ocean-going ships can travel the 1,000 miles to Manaus and that includes large cargo and tanker vessels. Our ship moved at a steady 18 knots all the way.

Our first stop on the river was at a small village. We anchored just off the muddy bank. Again, lifeboat tenders were lowered and passengers were able to wander about the small buildings and hut-type homes mounted on 30-foot stilts. During the rainy season the Amazon rises some 25 feet and more, so the residents of the little villages located on the riverbank must construct their huts on stilts.

This little village had a population of about 150 natives. They wondered about and most stared at us tourists from the big ship. They displayed carvings from wood and handmade garments. Very recently a generator had been made available to supply electricity to the one television set placed in the middle of the village with bench seats for viewing. The TV was possible via satellite.

As we continued to sail up the big river we frequently saw large ships passing. After two-and-a-half days we arrived and docked at Manaus. This is a city of more than 1.3 million people situated in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Several tours were offered ashore. Norma took the jungle rainforest walk guided by an expert to explain the flora and fauna. As soon as she got off the coach she discovered why it was called a rainforest. It began raining and all her group could do was to try and find cover under the large leaves of the jungle.

I selected the city tour, which included a stop at the famous Manaus Opera House. I had read about this structure many years earlier. It seems that in the 1800s the rubber barrens used Manaus as their port to send rubber to the States and Europe to produce tires and missed seeing grand opera. So, they built an opera house that resembled one found in Italy. And, it is grand.

Great opera singers from Europe would sail to South America and up the Amazon River to sing in this fantastic theater.

I also learned on this tour that more than half of the raw materials for medical drugs come from the Amazon region and many pharmaceuticals are produced in laboratories here. Manaus also has a fine zoo showing some of the native animals.

Norma and I also took a river fishing trip. This was a fishing trip for non-fishermen. They baited your hook and all we had to do was drop the line into the river to catch whatever bit the hook. We didn’t catch anything, but some caught little Paraná. They cooked them onboard for us to taste.

On the morning of the third day, the Olympia Voyager left the dock and headed downriver to return to the mouth of the Amazon and into the Atlantic. I spent many hours on deck looking at the jungle along the shoreline and was surprised at how much had been cut down to make way for farming. The world has criticized Brazil for allowing this and the U.S. has even donated many millions to the government to try and stop the practice. We need the Amazon rainforest to sustain world climate as we know it.

After another stop at a small town called Boca de Valeiro, we did some shopping for gifts to take back home, then sailed again to the mouth of the river heading north to three more Caribbean islands before returning to Florida.

All in all it was a wonderful, exciting experience. I still can hardly believe we sailed 2,000 miles on the Amazon. What a thrill. A few ships do this each year. You might like to try it yourself.

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